As excitement about graduation mounts, high school seniors are so busy that there's not a moment to think about what's next. But after the tassel has been turned and the degree conferred, feelings of uncertainty may set in. "Kids harbor fears, concerns and questions that they are afraid to ask," says Frank Cherichello, school counselor at Pascack Hills High School in Montvale.
Of course parents have their concerns too: Will my child buckle down and get great grades, or will he be distracted by the social whirl of college life? What if she doesn't get along with her roommate? What if he feels lonely and has no one to turn to? Parents know they will be on the sidelines, because this is a time when young people must figure out how to thrive on their own.
Smoothing the Transition
Deborah Shames, an independent college search consultant who works with many Bergen students, says the best way to encourage your student is to suggest they get involved with activities on campus right away.
"There are so many clubs and activities to get involved in," she says. "For the first time for many students, your peer group isn't determined by where your parents live." Even a shy student can find an area of interest. "Pick something and just show up. You are all in the same situation. When you have an activity that you like, and you participate in it with others, that helps you form the connection."
Herb Tannenbaum of Fort Lee, a psychologist and the owner of Harbor Hills Day Camp, will send his son to college in the fall. He says students have to walk the fine line between staying close to friends at home and being open to new experiences.
"You have to prepare them for the separation from the community, lifestyle and routine that they are familiar with, to being on their own in a new environment," he says. The temptation to only communicate about new experiences with old friends is greater because of technology, but "if your child is just texting friends at home about what's happening, rather than putting energy into meeting people, it will keep him isolated."
Shames say many kids will go from a strict routine to an environment where they may be in a classroom for fewer than 20 hours a week. They need to stay on track and be organized. She recommends that students structure their days for maximum productivity. "I don't tell them that they have to take every 8 a.m. class, but to try to get on campus early," she says. "After the morning class, it's more natural to go to the library to study and continue being productive."
She adds that reaching out to professors – even if the student is in a large lecture class – can be the key to success. "Find at least one professor per semester that you can develop a relationship or a rapport with," she says. "You might need them at some point for a recommendation, but it's also good to have an adult role model to connect with."
Advocating for oneself while still in high school is also very important. "You can almost pinpoint the seniors who will be able to do this on their own," Cherichello says. "I will encourage kids who are tentative with this and help them with it."
Talk it Out
Albert Pucciarelli, an attorney from Ridgewood, has four children. The youngest is a student at Penn State. He says he has always stressed to his children to remember that they still have a home and to use sound judgment.
"The last thing I want is for them to feel lonely and not feel that we are there for them," he says. "We also stress that they should remember everything they learned from us and our church and to keep their moral compass set in the right direction."
Using current events to talk about how you want your student to behave while they are away from you can also be helpful, says Daniel Rothner, founder and director of Areyvut, a Bergenfield organization that brings programming to synagogues and Jewish day schools.
"I think parents and educators should use current events to teach values and ethics and to model how to deal with issues," he says. "This applies to everything from your team winning or losing the big game to bullying, cheating and business ethics."
Cherichello says that at his school, a group of college freshmen is invited back to speak with the seniors – and that the teachers and counselors leave the room, encouraging more openness. "These are the people that they can ask about drinking in college," he says, "or what do to when the roommate has his girlfriend over."
Cut the Cord
Sometimes mom and dad can't let go, and Tannenbaum says that's only going to make a student anxious. "There are some parents who are so fused with their kids that they continue to find ways to connect constantly even when the child is away," he says. "They aren't letting the kids grow into their own."
One of the biggest goals for parents, he says, should be to ramp up their student's psychological age to his chronological age. And that is best done by acknowledging his independence.
While many children are homesick when they go to college, this is usually a temporary state. Pucciarelli says that when his oldest daughter was going through a tough bout at Cornell, he encouraged her to think of the short term and just try to get through the semester.
"The weather was getting to her," he says, "and so I said finish the semester, we will discuss where you will go the next semester." After returning home for break, she decided she wanted to go back, and she graduated from that university.
Finally, Cherichello says, over the summer months before the kids leave, it's a good idea to spend some parent-student time – even without other siblings around. "Go for some quality bonding time in recognition of the big changes that are in store."
Moving on from Middle School
If your child is graduating from middle school and moving on to high school, here are some suggestions.
Plan ahead. Students often feel nervous about dealing with a large high school, so come up with strategies to address those fears. For instance, if the concern is about getting lost, do a tour of the school and find out whether there is an orientation period where only freshman are in the building.
Encourage your student to get involved in school activities. Activities help students bond to the school and get to know small groups of students, which makes the high school experience seem more personal and less overwhelming.
Supervise, but stay in the background. Now is the time for your student to manage her own workload, but you can check up by using the high school's online tools. If you see grades starting to slip or assignments missing, have a frank discussion with your student about what's going on.
For students with learning differences
Dr. Jennifer Politis, a Ramsey-based therapist who specializes in children and adolescents, has these tips for parents sending a child with learning differences off to college.
Self Advocacy. It's important to model advocacy for children and encourage them to do the same for themselves. Encourage your child to first speak to a teacher if he perceives a problem and only intervene as a parent if the problem is not resolved.
Visit the disabilities office on the campus. Get a clear understanding of what services are provided and academic aids available. Ask questions so there are no surprises.
Bring all documentation. Do not assume your child's learning plans will follow her to college. Have your child bring the information to the disability office so there is no break in the continuation of services.
Plan ahead. Encourage your child to get help early in the semester, as it is easier to prevent problems than to solve them later. This will also allow them to stay ahead of difficulties.